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What Middle East scholars really think about boycotting Israel

The latest Middle East Scholars Barometer survey explored this contentious issue — and more

- November 22, 2022

Earlier this year, the Middle East Studies Association passed a controversial resolution endorsing a nonbinding boycott of Israeli academic institutions. MESA, the leading multidisciplinary global organization for academics studying the Middle East, polled its membership in a referendum on a resolution that responded to the call by Palestinian civil service organizations for solidarity in the face of Israeli occupation and human rights violations.

Did the vote in favor of the boycott, backed by 82 percent of participating MESA members, reflect broader attitudes among Middle East scholars?

Yes and no. In the fourth round of the Middle East Scholars Barometer, fielded from Oct. 25 to Nov. 8, with a response rate of 32 percent, we found that only a slight majority (54 percent) of the more than 500 respondents said they support the Middle East Studies Association boycott. And there’s a significant disciplinary divide. Only 43 percent of political scientists supported the MESA resolution, compared with 62 percent of scholars from other disciplines.

To be clear, this latest survey found little evidence of blanket objections to boycotts targeting Israel. A resounding 91 percent of Middle East scholars, including 91 percent of political scientists, support at least some boycotts of Israel. But more than a third of survey respondents — and nearly half of political scientists — say that it’s the boycott of academic institutions they oppose. That’s an important finding about the conflicting interpretations of academic freedom on a deeply contentious issue.

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That’s only one of the intriguing findings from the fourth wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer, a biannual survey of self-identified Middle East-focused members of the American Political Science Association, the Middle East Studies Association and the American Historical Association. The survey also revealed unique findings about the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on academic research and other issues.

Where should academic workshops be held?

Critics of the MESA vote, and of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign more broadly, often claim that these types of protests unfairly single out Israel. Why boycott Israeli academic institutions, they argue, when other Middle Eastern countries have equally bad or worse records on human rights? To assess that critique, as well as broader concerns across the discipline about the ethics and practical safety concerns of doing research in an increasingly repressive region, we asked respondents whether they believed it was appropriate to hold academic workshops in various Middle Eastern countries — and, if not, then why.

Respondents split almost evenly on holding workshops in Israel, just as they did on the MESA resolution. Of the 53 percent who objected to holding workshops in Israel, 94 percent cited ethical concerns, with far fewer mentioning issues of access or personal safety. There is a clear generational divide: 73 percent of graduate students opposed holding workshops in Israel, compared with 52 percent of full professors.

But Saudi Arabia, not Israel, held the dubious distinction of being the country in which the most scholars — 69 percent — would oppose holding an academic workshop. There was less opposition to holding workshops in other Middle Eastern countries: 38 percent objected to holding workshops in Egypt, 35 percent in the United Arab Emirates and only 20 percent in Qatar or Turkey.

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About 80 percent of those opposing workshops in most countries cited ethical concerns. But objections to holding workshops in Egypt stood out for a different reason. More of those opposing workshops in Egypt cited concerns about personal safety (46 percent) or about access and/or safety of workshop participants (75 percent). Again, there was a disciplinary divide: political scientists were 19 percentage points more likely than non-political scientists to have such reservations. That’s probably a reflection of Egypt’s grim record of imprisoning academics on trumped-up charges over the past decade. Few members of the academic community, for instance, will have forgotten the killing of Italian graduate student Giuilo Regeni in 2016, allegedly by Egyptian security services.

Meetings in the United Arab Emirates also raised safety concerns. Political scientists were twice as likely as non-political scientists (67 percent vs. 33 percent) to cite concerns about access or safety of participants. The months-long detention in 2018 of British graduate student Matthew Hedges on allegations of espionage, as well as media attention to UAE use of surveillance technologies and intolerance of political dissent, may drive the concerns of political scientists.

Yet only 20 percent of respondents objected to holding workshops in Turkey despite the Erdogan government’s extensive assault on higher education in recent years. This finding perhaps reflects feelings of solidarity with embattled Turkish academics.

Do Middle East scholars self-censor?

A significant number of Middle East scholars report treading carefully in discussing their work. A solid majority of those surveyed say they feel a need to censor their speech when they speak professionally about the Middle East: 57 percent overall, including 75 percent of graduate students and 66 percent of untenured assistant professors.

It’s not primarily the “woke mob” they fear, though. Among those who say they feel a need to self-censor, more respondents cited concern about pressure from external advocacy groups (58 percent) than campus culture, or the risk of offending students (51 percent). That likely reflects the long history of pro-Israeli groups seeking to police permitted discourse on the Middle East, with advocacy organizations publishing dossiers of alleged anti-Israeli activities by university faculty and students.

And 30 percent of respondents note they self-censor because of government limitations on permissible speech, likely in reference to state laws such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Stop Woke Act or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory. The rapid proliferation of legislation prohibiting boycotts of Israel — which an overwhelming 97 percent of the respondents opposed — is another likely factor.

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Is there a “Monkey Cage effect”?

Despite these fears, more than half of the respondents did nonetheless express the importance of explaining their work to the general public. We didn’t ask specifically about The Monkey Cage — but we did ask about how scholars disseminated their research.

This article, and others published by The Monkey Cage, offer political scientists one such platform for reaching the general public. And we found something interesting. We found that even though political scientists were 12 percentage points less likely than scholars from other disciplines to view the general public as an audience for their research, political scientists were 15 points more likely to have published an online post about their research in the past three years. Perhaps that’s some small Monkey Cage effect?

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Marc Lynch is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.